One of my favorite listening moments of last year came at the tail end of kora player Toumani Diabate’s stunning solo display, The Mande Variations. After an elaborate showcase that wound through a classical piece commemorating Alexander the Great and a ruminative homage to the recently departed Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure (the two dueted brilliantly on 2005’s In the Heart of the Moon), Diabate put 700 years of the kora’s tradition behind him as he reprised the theme from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” From Morricone’s iconic whistled melody, Diabate veered back to the spellbinding nuances of this 21-string harp-lute (comprised of calabash, fishing line, a wooden bridge, and cow skin) that has graced recordings of jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, blues maker Taj Mahal, and Bjork’s Volta. For an instant, time was suspended.
Tonight, that introspective aspect of Diabate (no doubt ruminating on an unbroken musical family lineage going back 71 generations) is put aside as he joins with his Symmetric Orchestra for a decidedly extroverted, celebratory affair. Strolling onto the LPR stage clad in an understated brown and bronze robe that suggested a texture somewhere between wood grain and tiger stripes, Diabate settled on the floor at the front of the stage as his octet –augmented by Malian singers Kouyate Mamadou and Somalia Kanoute- surrounded him. At once the center of attention and yet never quite the focus of the proceedings to come, Diabate commenced nearly two hours of music-making with an understated duet between him and n’goni player Ganda Tounkara.
By the second number, the ensemble’s steadfast slink slowly turned into an unceasing, ever-cresting groove. The towering corn silk blue-clad figure of the group’s singer, Kanoute, clutched untold numbers of Jacksons and Grants in his fist, while Diabate himself took a moment away from thumbing the kora’s strings to fist-pump a member of the audience. Come the fourth extended number, the band and crowd were at a full lather, ebullient and ecstatic. Amid a dizzying solo from Diabate, Kanoute squatted down to enact “air kora” moves (complete with facial grimaces) before singing the praises of “Toumani.” Still mid-song, Toumani then gave a quick tutorial to guitarist Fanta Madi Kouyate before his own shimmering solo.
For the set’s last song, djembe player Boubacar Diabate (no direct relation), clad in what could have been misconstrued as a Rastafarian pair of overalls with tassels, engaged in an epic duel/ duet with a long queue of female dancers from the crowd, the last dancer toweling him off as the song finally wound down over ten minutes later. For the encore, Toumani brought up his niece to sing, and held court with a history lesson and tutorial on the kora’s make-up, along with issuing adages that in this ensemble, “the past meets the present for the future” and that “music is the best way to make communication.” He demonstrated how he could elicit such heavenly sounds from just thumbs and forefingers, the left thumb handling the bass tones, the right thumb the melody, the two lightning-quick digits improvising effortlessly. Diabate then humbly asked–if, after all, it only required the same four fingers to play his chosen instrument as it does to send a text message–“what’s the difference between me and you?” “Seven hundred years!” someone shouted from the crowd.